Light pollution, also known as photopollution or luminous pollution, is excess or obtrusive light created mainly by humans. Among other effects, and like any other form of pollution, it disrupts ecosystems, can cause adverse health effects, obscures the stars for city dwellers, and interferes with astronomical observatories. Light pollution can be construed to fall into two main branches: annoying light that intrudes on an otherwise natural or low light setting and excessive light, generally indoors, that leads to worker discomfort and adverse health effects. Since the early 1980s, a global dark-sky movement has emerged, with concerned people campaigning to reduce the amount of light pollution.
Light pollution is a side effect of industrial civilization. Its sources include building exterior and interior lighting, advertising, commercial properties, offices, factories, streetlights, and illuminated sporting venues. It is most severe in highly industrialized, densely populated areas of North America, Europe, and Japan and in major cities in the Middle East and North Africa like Cairo, but even relatively small amounts of light can be noticed and create problems. Like other forms of pollution, such as air, water and noise pollution, light pollution causes damage to the environment.
With recent advances in private spaceflight, the prospect of space-based orbiting billboards appearing in the near future has provoked concern that such objects may become another form of light pollution. With this in mind, the United States Federal Aviation Administration sought permission, in May 2005, to enforce a law prohibiting "obtrusive" advertising in earth orbit. Similar intentions are yet to be expressed by authorities in most other countries.
Since not everyone is irritated by the same lighting sources, it is common for one person's light "pollution" to be light that is desirable for another. One example of this is found in advertising, when an advertiser wishes for particular lights to be bright and visible, even though others find them annoying. Other types of light pollution are more certain. For instance, light that accidentally crosses a property boundary and annoys a neighbor is generally wasted and pollutive light.
Disputes are still common when deciding appropriate action, and differences in opinion over what light is considered reasonable, and who should be responsible, mean that negotiation must sometimes take place between parties. Where objective measurement is desired, light levels can be quantified by field measurement or mathematical modeling, with results typically displayed as an isophote map or light contour map. Authorities have also taken a variety of measures for dealing with light pollution, depending on the interests, beliefs and understandings of the society involved. Measures range from doing nothing at all, to implementing strict laws and regulations about how lights may be installed and used.
Light pollution is a broad term that refers to multiple problems, all of which are caused by inefficient, unappealing, or (arguably) unnecessary use of artificial light. Specific categories of light pollution include light trespass, over-illumination, glare, clutter, and sky glow. A single offending light source often falls into more than one of these categories.
A number of cities in the U.S. have developed standards for outdoor lighting to protect the rights of their citizens against light trespass. To assist them, the International Dark-Sky Association has developed a set of model lighting ordinances. The Dark-Sky Association was started to reduce the light going up into the sky which reduces visibility of stars, see sky glow below. This is any light which is emitted more than 90 degrees above nadir. By limiting light at this 90 degree mark they have also reduced the light output in the 80-90 degree range which creates most of the light trespass issues. U.S. federal agencies may also enforce standards and process complaints within their areas of jursidiction. For instance, in the case of light trespass by white strobe lighting from communication towers in excess of FAA minimum lighting requirements the FCC maintains a database of Antenna Structure Registration information which citizens may use to identify offending structures and provides a mechanism for processing consumer inquiries and complaints. The US Green Building Council (USGBC) has also incorporated into their environmentally friendly building standard known as LEED, a credit for reducing the amount of light trespass and sky glow.
Light trespass can be reduced by selecting light fixtures which limit the amount of light emitted more than 80 degrees above the nadir. The IESNA definitions include full cutoff (10%), cutoff (10%), and semi-cutoff (20%). (These definitions also include limits on light emitted above 90 degrees to reduce sky glow.)
Ordinances have also been written to limit the amount of light at the property line and beyond, but may be unrealistic or vague. Realistic limits and clarity in measurement need to be provided. Stating "zero light at the property line" is too vague. Absolute zero means that even if a light fixture is a mile away and the light source is visible, it is in violation, and would require hoods to be placed over every light fixture. What is realistic may vary according to whether an area is residential or industrial, urban, suburban or rural. The credit offered by LEED provides limits at the property line and 10-15 feet beyond it. At the 10-15 foot distance LEED limits light to 0.01 fc. (For comparison, a full moon provides 0.03 fc and a moonless night 0.004 fc). This is a very difficult limit to comply with while providing even light on a parking lot and driveway. How is the light to be measured? Horizontal measurements are common for interior and exterior lighting calculations. However, for light trespass the concern is how much light shines into a person's eye. Measurements may be made at approximate eye level (5' high) of the vertical light level facing into the site, or aimed at the brightest light source. Exceptions might be allowed where drives enter the street. This would permit street lights at the drive entrance to make cars more visible as they pull into traffic. Limiting pole height is another common ordinance tactic to reduce light trespass. This becomes counterproductive when the ordinance also has max:min ratios for safety concerns. Reducing pole height will increase dark spots on a site. Increasing the number of poles is only viable to a certain point due to the width of the aisles & parking. Otherwise poles would need to be placed in the parking spaces and aisles to maintain even lighting.
Over-illumination is the excessive use of light. Specifically within the United States, over-illumination is responsible for approximately two million barrels of oil per day in energy wasted. This is based upon U.S. consumption of equivalent of of petroleum. It is further noted in the same U.S. Department of Energy source that over 30 percent of all energy is consumed by commercial, industrial and residential sectors. Energy audits of existing buildings demonstrate that the lighting component of residential, commercial and industrial uses consumes about 20 to 40 percent of those land uses, variable with region and land use. (Residential use lighting consumes only 10 to 30 percent of the energy bill while commercial buildings major use is lighting.) Thus lighting energy accounts for about four or five million barrels of oil (equivalent) per day. Again energy audit data demonstrates that about 30 to 60 percent of energy consumed in lighting is unneeded or gratuitous.
An alternative calculation starts with the fact that commercial building lighting consumes in excess of 81.68 terawatts (1999 data) of electricity, according to the U.S. DOE. Thus commercial lighting alone consumes about four to five million barrels per day (equivalent) of petroleum, in line with the alternate rationale above to estimate U.S. lighting energy consumption.
Over-illumination stems from several factors:
Most of these issues can be readily corrected with available, inexpensive technology; however, there is considerable inertia in the field of lighting design and with landlord/tenant practices that create barriers to rapid correction of these matters. Most importantly public awareness would need to improve for industrialized countries to realize the large payoff in reducing over-illumination
Glare can also result in reduced contrast, due to light scattering in the eye by excessive brightness, or to reflection of light from dark areas in the field of vision, with luminance similar to the background luminance. This kind of glare is a particular instance of disability glare, called veiling glare.
Glare can be categorized into different types. One such classification is described in a book by Bob Mizon, coordinator for the British Astronomical Association's Campaign for Dark Skies. According to this classification:
Sky glow refers to the "glow" effect that can be seen over populated areas. It is the combination of all light reflected from what it has illuminated escaping up into the sky and from all of the badly directed light in that area that also escapes into the sky, being scattered (redirected) by the atmosphere back toward the ground. This scattering is very strongly related to the wavelength of the light when the air is very clear (with very little aerosols). Rayleigh scattering dominates in such clear air, making the sky appear blue in the daytime. When there is significant aerosol (typical of most modern polluted conditions), the scattered light has less dependence on wavelength, making a whiter daytime sky. Because of this Rayleigh effect, and because of the eye's increased sensitivity to white or blue-rich light sources when adapted to very low light levels (see Purkinje effect), white or blue-rich light contributes significantly more to sky-glow than an equal amount of yellow light. Sky glow is of particular irritation to astronomers, because it reduces contrast in the night sky to the extent where it may even become impossible to see any but the brightest stars.
The Bortle Dark-Sky Scale, originally published in Sky & Telescope magazine, is sometimes used to quantify sky glow and general sky clarity. The Bortle Scale rates the darkness of the sky and the visibility of night sky phenomena such as the gegenschein and the zodiacal band, easily masked by sky glow, on a scale of one to nine, providing a detailed description of each step on the scale.
Light is particularly problematic for amateur astronomers, whose ability to observe the night sky from their property is likely to be inhibited by any stray light from nearby. Most major optical astronomical observatories are surrounded by zones of strictly-enforced restrictions on light emissions.
"Direct" sky glow can be reduced by selecting lighting fixtures which limit the amount of light emitted more than 90 degrees above the nadir. The IESNA definitions include full cutoff (0%), cutoff (2.5%), and semi-cutoff (5%). "Indirect" skyglow produced by reflections from vertical and horizontal surfaces is harder to manage; the only effective method for preventing it is by minimizing over-illumination.
Measuring the effect of sky glow on a global scale is a complex procedure. The natural atmosphere is not completely dark, even in the absence of terrestrial sources of light. This is caused by two main sources: airglow and scattered light.
At high altitudes, primarily above the mesosphere, UV radiation from the sun is so intense that ionization occurs. When these ions collide with electrically neutral particles they recombine and emit photons in the process, causing airglow. The degree of ionization is sufficiently large to allow a constant emission of radiation even during the night when the upper atmosphere is in the earth's shadow.
Apart from emitting light, the sky also scatters incoming light, primarily from distant stars and the Milky Way, but also sunlight that is reflected and backscattered from interplanetary dust particles (the so-called Zodiacal light).
The amount of airglow and zodiacal light is quite variable but given optimal conditions the darkest possible sky has a brightness of about 22 magnitude/square arcsecond. If a full moon is present, the sky brightness increases to 18 magnitude/sq. arcsecond, 40 times brighter than the darkest sky. In densely populated areas a sky brightness of 17 magnitude/sq. arcsecond is not uncommon, or as much as 100 times brighter than is natural.
To precisely measure how bright the sky gets, night time satellite imagery of the earth is used as raw input for the number and intensity of light sources. These are put into a physical model of scattering due to air molecules and aerosoles to calculate cumulative sky brightness. Maps that show the enhanced sky brightness have been prepared for the entire world.
Inspection of the area surrounding Madrid reveals that the effects of light pollution caused by a single large conglomeration can be felt up to 100 km away from the center. Global effects of light pollution are also made obvious. The entire area consisting of southern England, Netherlands, Belgium, west Germany, and northern France have a sky brightness of at least 2 to 4 times above normal (see above right). The only place in continental Europe where the sky can attain its natural darkness is in northern Scandinavia.
In North America the situation is comparable. From the east coast to west Texas up to the Canadian border there is very significant global light pollution.
Common levels of fluorescent lighting in offices are sufficient to elevate blood pressure by about eight points. There is some evidence that lengthy daily exposure to moderately high lighting leads to diminished sexual performance. Specifically within the USA, there is evidence that levels of light in most office environments lead to increased stress as well as increased worker errors.
In 1978 Cohen et al proposed that reduced production of the hormone melatonin might increase the risk of breast cancer and citing "environmental lighting" as a possible causal factor.
Researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences have concluded a study that suggests that artificial light during the night can be a factor for breast cancer.
In 2007, "shiftwork that involves circadian disruption" was listed as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer. (IARC Press release No. 180). Multiple studies have documented a link between night shift work and the increased incidence of breast cancer.
A good review of current knowledge of the health consequences of exposure to artificial light at night and an explanation of the causal mechanisms has been published in the Journal of Pineal Research in 2007.
Studies suggest that light pollution around lakes prevents zooplankton, such as Daphnia, from eating surface algae, helping cause algal blooms that can kill off the lakes' plants and lower water quality. Light pollution may also affect ecosystems in other ways. For example, Lepidopterists and entomologists have documented that night-time light may interfere with the ability of moths and other nocturnal insects to navigate. Night blooming flowers that depend on moths for pollination may be affected by night lighting, as there is no replacement pollinator that would not be affected by the artificial light. This can lead to species decline of plants that are unable to reproduce, and change an area's longterm ecology.
Migrating birds can be disoriented by lights on tall structures. Estimates by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the number of birds killed after being attracted to tall towers range from 4-5 million per year to an order of magnitude higher. The Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) works with building owners in Toronto, Canada and other cities to reduce mortality of birds by turning out lights during migration periods.
Other well-known casualties of light pollution are sea turtle hatchlings emerging from nests on beaches. It is a common misconception that hatchling sea turtles are attracted to the moon. They are not; rather, they find the ocean by moving away from the dark silhouette of dunes and their vegetation, a behavior with which artificial lights interfere. Juvenile seabirds may also be disoriented by lights as they leave their nests and fly out to sea.
Nocturnal frogs and salamanders are also affected by light pollution. Since they are nocturnal, they wake up when there is no light. Light pollution may cause salamanders to emerge from concealment later, giving them less time to mate and reproduce.
A book that assembles various research on the subject was released in 2005.
The International Dark-Sky Association claims there are no good scientific studies that convincingly show a relationship between lighting and crime. Furthermore, the association claims that badly installed artificial lights can create a deeper contrast of shadows in which criminals might hide. The New England Light Pollution Advisory Group claims that some light emitted by some fixtures can be a significant hazard to motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists due to their scattering of light and glare.
The specific effects of outdoor lighting on safety are still a topic of debate, and formal research in the area is not well established.
Light trespass can impact observations when stray light enters the tube of the telescope from off-axis, and is reflected from surfaces other than the telescope's mirrors (if any) so that it eventually reaches the eyepiece, causing a glow across the field of view since it has not been focused. The usual measures to reduce this glare, if reducing the light directly (e.g. by changing one's location or having the light turned off) is not an option, include flocking the telescope tube and accessories to reduce reflection, and putting a light shield (also usable as a dew shield) on the telescope to reduce light entering from angles other than those near the target. In one Italian regional lighting code this effect of stray light is defined as "optical pollution", due to the fact that there is a direct path from the light source to the "optic" - the observer's eye or telescope.
The use of full cutoff lighting fixtures, as much as possible, is advocated by most campaigners for the reduction of light pollution. It is also commonly recommended that lights be spaced appropriately for maximum efficiency, and that lamps within the fixtures not be overpowered.
A full cutoff fixture, when correctly installed, reduces the chance for light to escape above the plane of the horizontal. Light released above the horizontal may sometimes be lighting an intended target, but often serves no purpose. When it enters into the atmosphere, light contributes to sky glow. Some governments and organizations are now considering, or have already implemented, full cutoff fixtures in street lamps and stadium lighting.
The use of full cutoff fixtures may help to reduce sky glow by preventing light from escaping unnecessarily. Full cutoff typically reduces the visibility of the lamp and reflector within a luminaire, so the effects of glare may also be reduced. Campaigners also commonly argue that full cutoff fixtures are more efficient than other fixtures, since light that would otherwise have escaped into the atmosphere may instead be directed towards the ground. However, full cutoff fixtures may also trap more light in the fixture than other types of luminaires, corresponding to lower luminaire efficiency.
The use of full cutoff fixtures may allow for lower wattage lamps to be used in the fixtures, producing the same or sometimes a better effect, due to being more carefully controlled. In every lighting system, some sky glow also results from light reflected from the ground. This reflection can be reduced, however, by being careful to use only the lowest wattage necessary for the lamp, and setting spacing between lights appropriately.
A common criticism of full cutoff lighting fixtures is that they are sometimes not as aesthetically pleasing to look at. This is most likely because historically there has not been a large market specifically for full cutoff fixtures, and because people typically like to see the source of illumination. Due to the specificity with their direction of light, full cutoff fixtures sometimes also require expertise to install for maximum effect.
The effectiveness of using full cutoff roadway lights to combat light pollution has also been called into question. According to computer simulations, luminaires with full cutoff distributions (as opposed to cutoff or semi cutoff, compared here) have to be closer together to meet the same light level, uniformity and glare requirements specified by the IESNA. These simulations attempted to optimize the height and spacing of the lights while constraining the overall design to within the IESNA requirements, and then compared total uplight and energy consumption of different luminaire designs and powers. Cutoff designs paradoxically performed better than full cutoff designs. This indicates that, in roadway installations, over-illumination required by full cutoff fixtures may be more detrimental than direct uplight created by fewer cutoff fixtures. Therefore, existing systems could be improved more by reducing the number of luminaires than by switching to full cutoff designs: however, taking into account the definition of "light pollution" according to some Italian regional bills (ie "every irradiance of artificial light outside competence areas and particularly upward the sky" ) only full cutoff design prevents light pollution. It should be noted too that Italian Lombardia region, where only full cutoff design is allowed, has the 2007 lowest energy consumption for public lighting in the nation according to the population: this fact can be verified using data released by Terna company.
Some types of light sources, in order of energy efficiency, are:
|Type of light source||Color||Luminous Efficacy in lumens per watt|
|Low Pressure Sodium (LPS/SOX)||yellow/amber||80 - 200|
|High Pressure Sodium (HPS/SON)||pink/amber-white||90 - 130|
|Metal Halide||bluish-white/white||60 -120|
|Mercury-Vapour||blue-greenish white||13 - 48|
|Incandescent||yellow/white||8 - 25|
Many astronomers request that nearby communities use low pressure sodium lights as much as possible, because the principal wavelength emitted is comparably easy to work around or in rare cases filter out. The low cost of operating sodium lights is another feature. In 1980, for example, San Jose, California, replaced all street lamps with low pressure sodium lamps, whose light is easier for nearby Lick Observatory to filter out. Similar programs are now in place in Arizona and Hawaii.
Disadvantages of low pressure sodium lighting are that fixtures must usually be larger than competing fixtures, and color cannot be distinguished — due to its emitting principally a single wavelength of light (see security lighting). Due to the substantial size of the lamp, particularly in higher wattages such as 135 W and 180 W, control of light emissions from low pressure sodium luminaires is more difficult. For applications requiring more precise direction of light (such as narrow roadways) the native lamp efficacy advantage of this lamp type is decreased and may be entirely lost compared to high pressure sodium lamps. Allegations that this also leads to higher amounts of light pollution from luminaires running these lamps arise principally because of older luminaires with poor shielding, still widely in use in the UK and in some other locations. Modern low-pressure sodium fixtures with better optics and full shielding, and the decreased sky glow impacts of yellow light (see sky glow discussion) preserve the luminous efficacy advantage of low-pressure sodium and result in most cases is less energy consumption and less visible light pollution. Unfortunately, due to continued lack of accurate information (see for example section 4.10 What Types of Lamps Are Used in Outdoor Lighting? in the IDA Outdoor Lighting Code Handbook) many lighting professionals continue to disparage low-pressure sodium, contributing to its decreased acceptance and specification in lighting standards and therefore its use.
Because of the scatter of light by the atmosphere, different sources produce dramatically different amounts of skyglow from the same amount of light sent into the atmosphere. For a discussion of these effects see the section on sky glow.
One example of a lighting plan assessment can be seen in a report originally commissioned by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in the United Kingdom, and now available through the Department for Communities and Local Government. The report details a plan to be implemented throughout the UK, for designing lighting schemes in the countryside, with a particular focus on preserving the environment.
In another example, the city of Calgary has recently replaced most residential street lights with models that are comparably energy efficient. The motivation is primarily operation cost and environmental conservation. The costs of installation are expected to be regained through energy savings within six to seven years.
The Swiss agency for energy efficiency (SAFE) uses a concept which promises to be of great use in the diagnosis and design of road lighting, i.e. "consommation électrique spécifique (CES)", which can be translated into English as "specific electric power consumption (SEC)". Thus, based on observed lighting levels in a wide range of Swiss towns, SAFE has defined target values for electric power consumption per metre for roads of various categories. Thus, SAFE currently recommends an SEC of 2 to 3 watts per meter for roads of less than 10 metre width (4 to 6 watts per metre for wider roads). Such a measure provides an easily applicable environmental protection constraint on conventional "norms", which usually are based on the recommendations of lighting manufacturing interests, who may not take into account environmental criteria. In view of ongoing progress in lighting technology, target SEC values will need to be periodically revised downwards.
A newer method for predicting and measuring various aspects of light pollution was described in the journal Lighting Research Technology (September 2008). Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have developed a comprehensive method called Outdoor Site-Lighting Performance (OSP), which allows users to quantify — and thus optimize — the performance of existing and planned lighting designs and applications to minimize excessive or obtrusive light leaving the boundaries of a property. OSP can be used by lighting engineers immediately, particularly for the investigation of glow and trespass (glare analyses are more complex to perform and current commercial software does not readily allow them), and can help users compare several lighting design alternatives for the same site.
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